At inside linebacker, Auburn's future is looking brighter
Josh Aldridge inherited a room with little established depth. By landing two SEC West transfers, Auburn has flipped the script inside.
It didn’t take long for Josh Aldridge to realize that he had a lot of work to do at his new job.
Aldridge was announced as Auburn’s linebackers coach on Dec. 23. He was a later addition to the staff, as he was Liberty’s interim head coach for its bowl game after Hugh Freeze left in late November.
The former co-defensive coordinator walked into a room that was losing fourth-year senior Owen Pappoe, who led Auburn with 93 tackles and 806 defensive snaps last season, to the NFL.
And there wasn’t a ton behind Pappoe. Cam Riley was No. 2 on the team in tackles (66) and played the second-most snaps at linebacker (477). Then there was Wesley Steiner, who had 46 tackles and 348 snaps — but he only played 12 snaps across the final four games of the season, which included two DNPs.
After that? Desmond Tisdol had 46 snaps and 13 tackles. Then it’s a massive drop-off to a collection of walk-ons and underclassmen who had single-digit tackles and less than 30 snaps last season. (UNC transfer Eugene Asante only played five snaps in the opener against Mercer.)
Auburn’s previous staff had an abnormal allergy to rotating players, particularly on defense. Don’t expect the current staff to be the same way.
“Regardless of our system, you can't deny that we're lacking some experience,” Aldridge said recently. “Because it seemed to me like, watching the tape, (we) mainly had two guys who took the majority of all the snaps at linebacker last year.
“I'm not that way. I want to have about four or five that play.”
The best way for Aldridge to ensure he had that depth was by attacking the transfer portal, just like every other assistant on Freeze’s staff.
A couple of weeks after Aldridge was announced as Auburn’s new linebackers coach, DeMario Tolan entered the transfer portal. Tolan was a 4-star recruit and top-20 linebacker nationally in the 2022 class, and Auburn’s previous staff just missed out on him. Tolan went to LSU, where he played in all but two games for the SEC West champions as a true freshman.
Four days after Tolan went into the portal, he was announced as a transfer to Auburn. Auburn, under new management, was able to make the most of its second chance at the Orlando native.
But Tolan wouldn’t be the only SEC West linebacker coming to the Plains. While the Tigers were locking up Tolan’s commitment, Austin Keys announced his departure from Ole Miss. A starting inside linebacker from Mississippi, Keys also didn’t take long to pick his transfer destination, landing at Auburn the next week.
In just the span of a couple of weeks, Auburn went from a team with a ton of question marks at inside linebacker to one that seems much more solidified at the position for 2023 — and beyond.
“I wanted some experienced guys that still had some years on them,” Aldridge said. “And what better experience than to have guys who have played in this league, right? Because it's obviously a lot different than any league you can play in.
“And so, with those two guys — one having three years (left) and the other one having two — I felt like we hit a home run in terms of getting what we wanted out of both.”